Everyone has an occasional "bad hair day," but for those unfortunate people stricken with a condition known as "Smelly Hair Syndrome," a bad hair day can mean relationship problems, taunts from coworkers and even expulsion from school. Consider these examples:
"I wash my hair and by the middle of the day it has a sweaty, muggy smell ... I'm a sophomore in college, never had a boyfriend, never even kissed a guy, all because of this smelly demon that I have had to cope with since eighth grade." -- Corrin, The Beauty Brains Forum
"I go to work everyday because I have no choice, but my co-workers are very cruel to me because of the bad odor they smell coming from my head. They don't know how hard I try to take care of this problem." -- Sierra, The Beauty Brains Forum
"An 8-year-old girl said she was removed from her classroom at a Seattle school because of the way her hair smelled. She has now missed a full week at Thurgood Marshall Elementary." -- KIRO TV report
What's going on here? What is "Smelly Hair Syndrome" and can it really be so socially stigmatizing? After receiving hundreds of questions about this issue we were intrigued to find out more.
The symptoms of smelly hair
We discovered that Smelly Hair Syndrome manifests in one striking symptom: a horrific odor that emanates from the hair and scalp. According to the people who have commented on our blog, the olfactory character of the smell varies from person to person. Some describe it as "... stinks like a diaper." Others have compared the smell to "sour milk, wet dog, moldy hay, potatoes, an old shoe or dirty socks, a jacket that's never been to the dry cleaner, and an oily smell mixed with vomit." The most unusual description we've heard was "... sort of a cross between Dorito's Bold BBQ chips and cinnamon (and not a sweet smell, actually kinda foul) and maybe a hint of cheese." And, finally, one unfortunate reader told us that "my hair is so smelly that sometimes flies buzz around my head."
The odor is so strong that other people can easily notice it ("I know my co-workers could smell it and I was so embarrassed.") Spouses and significant others have also told us that the odor is problematic because it can transfer to towels and pillow cases. For some people the smell is noticeable right after showering; for others it starts a few days after they've washed their hair. We received several comments from people who shower before sleep and wake up with a smelly scalp. Interestingly, one person pointed out that their hair starts out with one scent right after washing and changes to a different odor about 12 hours later. In addition to the malodor, some people experience increase in oily hair and scalp. One woman notices a "thick, oily, flour-like substance on my scalp."
Causes and cures
These secondary symptoms made us wonder if a potential cause of Smelly Hair Syndrome could be seborrheic dermatitis (seb-o-REE-ik der-muh-TI-tis), because it causes an increase in oil production and flaky scalp residue. However, according to Mayo Clinic's webpage, scalp odors like those described above are not typically associated with seborrheic dermatitis. Furthermore, our readers tell us that in many cases their doctors have not been able to identify a definitive cause. Many said that their doctors didn't take the problem seriously: "I even went to the dermatologist. Twice! He never heard of such a thing and seemed to not even believe me which made me very angry! Why don't these doctors have a clue?!" "I went to see a dermatologist. Which was of no help! I got prescriptions and so forth but nothing worked."
Without a satisfactory medical explanation, people are left to figure out their own cures. Our readers have tried just about everything you can think of, including medicated shampoos like Nizoral, Selsun Blue, Neutrogena T/Gel, Head & Shoulders and Denorex. They've used tea tree-based products (like Giovanni Tea Tree Triple Treat conditioner) because of the alleged anti-fungal properties of tea tree oil (unfortunately, most tea tree oil shampoos contain very little of the actual oil). In desperation, some people have even tried medicated pet shampoos.
Others have forsaken commercial products for home remedies like lemon juice, baking soda, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, aloe vera, neem oil, chlorophyll supplements and a mixture of honey and cinnamon. One person even uses hand sanitizer on her scalp two or three times a day. Then there's the most elaborate of all the treatments we've heard of: "I go to this salon where they rub a liquid into your hair, wrap it in plastic wrap and steam it. This is followed with something they call 'frequency treatment' -- it is a glass rod attached to a machine and they deliver something like an electrical impulse."
What really works to treat Smelly Hair Syndrome? Of all the solutions proposed by our readers, two seemed to provide reasonably consistent results: Dial antibacterial liquid body wash and sulfur-containing soaps. These treatments make sense from a scientific point of view, if the cause is bacterial or fungal. An antibacterial agent (like the Triclosan used in the Dial bodywash) could prevent bacteria from growing, while sulfur could reduce scalp oiliness thereby eliminating the "food" that bacteria or fungi need to grow. For those who haven't had success with other treatments, these two options maybe worth a try. Of course, you should consult with a dermatologist to ensure your symptoms aren't caused by psoriasis or some other condition.
From the comments we've received, Smelly Hair Syndrome appears to be a real problem that is unresolved for many people. Based on our readers' input, the medical community has not yet provided a satisfactory solution. According to our understanding of chemistry and hair and scalp biology, shampooing with sulfur and Triclosan-based soaps may offer some relief. We hope that more definitive treatment options are identified by the medical and cosmetic science communities.
If you or someone you know suffers from Smelly Hair Syndrome, leave a comment and share your experiences with the rest of our readers. If you are a health care professional with experience with this problem, please leave a comment and share your advice.